Artists in Conversation: Niamh Barry and Gabrielle Fullam

Maisie McGregor sits down with Dublin-based photographer Niamh Barry and Trinity student writer and activist Gabrielle Fullam

Gabrielle and Niamh know each other, but more than this they share distinct artistic principles that make this conversation entirely fascinating and, further, important. Both are deeply implanted within the personal, recognizing the vital connection between art and the community within which it is founded. They discuss the ways in which their own identity as artist feeds into their work, as well as the relationship between their academic interest of choice and their consequent artistic ventures. They begin in agreement on the odd yet warm return to live events…

Gabrielle: Hey Niamh! How are you?

Niamh: Yeah I’m good, and you?

Gabrielle: I’m really good, really good. 

Niamh: We literally saw each other –

Gabrielle: – like a week ago!

Niamh: At the Orla Gartland gig, that was funny. You were like the only person I knew there and so I was clinging onto you like, “I don’t know anyone here!”

Gabrielle:  That’s always pleasant. Yeah, so nice to be at something live again actually.

Niamh: Yeah, yeah it was. Such a cool gig, I really enjoyed it.

Ok, I’ll ask you a question to begin with. You’re obviously a writer, theatre maker, activist, going by your Instagram – 

Gabrielle: Yeah I mean that’s straight up the Instagram bio, dead right!

Niamh: Cause I was like, I know that you’re a very creative person but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what your thing is. So that’s kinda cool that you have loads of different things; what’s one that means a lot to you creatively? 

Gabrielle: Well I think my line of work is very sort of, I don’t know, it’s an interesting interplay of personal and political. So I write a lot of, say, creative nonfiction style stuff. I also do lots of poetry and art. I don’t know why I said art, I mean like, more artistic, or less formal, forms of writing. And design – having those things sort of come together; I love installation type projects too. 

But I am also a researcher. And I suppose, those are all things that kind of gel within that identity for me, that move together. The kind of research that I’m interested in pursuing is very narrative construction based, so the idea of capturing experiences, and tying that into identity. 

Which a lot of your big projects have done as well, right? Like with Queer Hearts, and the new one is like … spaces? What’s it called? 

Niamh:  It’s called Within And Outside These Spaces, it took me so long to come up with that! I remember trying to come up with it with one of my friends and I was like, “What do you think of this?” And he said, “It’s not as good as Queer Hearts”, so I had to reconstruct it. 

But I agree, it’s very difficult to go through life and make creative things without inserting your own personal experiences, identity, and all those things; I think that just makes it a little more authentic. 

Gabrielle: And for me it’s definitely the pursuit of it; I do think what I’m trying to do is both understand the world I’m in and explain what I’m feeling a little bit better. 

Niamh: Yeah, we’re really similar in that way, everything’s very personal which is almost refreshing sometimes, I don’t know. How I kind of knew you artistically was definitely through Players, how did you get involved in that? What made you take an academic route instead of maybe studying Film or Drama? 

Gabrielle: Number two on my CAO was actually Drama and Sociology, so I was close, invariably in two minds about it. What about you? Were you ever thinking of going into IADT [Institute of Art Design and Technology] or doing something like that?

Niamh: No, I think I’ve always been such a, like, academic nerd. I always really liked learning about different things. But I was really interested in sociology in school. I liked history, and I feel like that comes into it a bit. I think when I was 16 or 17, I was like “What do I want to do?” I really wanted to study film, I never wanted to study anything like photography, I actually didn’t like it when I was growing up. I just thought it was one singular kind of thing, like digital photography, and nothing drew me to it.

I really liked making stupid little videos, like, I had no friends growing up so when anyone ever came over I’d be like, “Ok, we’re making a movie.” And I’d make it, edit it, and I think I kind of went back and forth with that for ages. But I don’t know, coming from Cork, and my Mum and Dad never went to college, so I thought, you know, this is an opportunity. 

“It’s very difficult to go through life and make creative things without inserting your own personal experiences, identity, and all those things; I think that just makes it a little more authentic.”

Gabrielle: I’m just wondering, because for me I definitely feel like my work itself is very supported and integrated with my studies, especially as time has gone on and I’ve found the niches that I really love and building up the idea of narrative discourse or the idea of art as a reflective tool for social change, and also as something that is eternally good for the soul. Is it something that has stayed distinct for you or have they merged? 

Niamh: They’re definitely kind of the same, I especially think more, with the recent project I did with Within And Outside These Spaces – I really related to the one that Anna and Roisin did. Their narrative was like, what it’s like to be in a queer relationship and have it mainly established inside and in those spaces, and then publicly go out and hold someone’s hand. I just really thought that it was good for my soul, in the sense of kind of connecting with other people. It was kind of both, it was the personal connection and also connecting to the bigger thing as well. 

I think in queer relaltionships there’s still that element of feeling a little bit unsafe on the streets. I felt that way anyway when I was in a relationship this time last year. I just felt that everyone was staring and you feel like, “Oh my god everyone looks at queer couples on the street and that it’s their right to stare at you, whereas if a straight couple walked past you you probably wouldn’t even notice.” 

So I definitely think that the personal experiences that I have as a queer woman is where my work kind of establishes itself; you see an issue going on in the community or in your own life, but you realise, especially with queerness, it kind of bridges. 

What about you? I’m interested in what you have to say about that.

Gabrielle: A lot of the work I’m doing right now, as a researcher, as SU Minorities Officer, and also as someone who writes, has been a lot about documenting my experiences. 

I’m mixed race, and you know, there’s kind of two major problems – not two, there’s more than two problems of the way we conceive of race discourse – but two interesting things that come to light, especially when you think of mixed race discourse, is that it’s built on this idea of a fundamental distinction between the races. And in the 1900s, and up until now, how white supremacy manifests is in segregationism; the idea that the races don’t actually want to mix. 

And that’s why mixed people have had to be painted in such a tragic light and have to present themselves with the identity of being ethnically ambiguous. People want those answers, they would say things like, “Well, that’s so unfortunate”, “Oh, you’re always going to be torn between two worlds”, “You’re going to be rejected.” When in fact it’s external society factors that are rejecting you. Or mixed race people are beautiful and they’re going to save the world and end racism. Both of which are very untrue in different ways.

So a big thing I had working through it dealing with, first of all those things that happened to me personally, but also with the idea that like I don’t have contact with my Indian family, I live in Ireland with my white family. But I’m not white. So what is it about me, and how do you make those links? Working through those things creatively has been a really big deal for me and I think, what kind of informs me. 

Sorry that ended up being a bit of a derail but I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s really interesting problems and questions. You know I write a newsletter, Hands and Knees, in which I try to kind of understand this idea of news and what is news and what isn’t. These really interesting social questions become really personal, or are in of themselves incredibly personal; you’re talking about people’s identity, their family, and their background. I think, not only that it’s not a good idea academically to separate it from the personal, but it’s also probably a bit of a moral wrong to the people who don’t end up in the centre of those conversations. So I think art in that sense isn’t just a means of exploring it, but it’s a vital way of building up those narratives and asking what it means in those relationships. 

“I definitely think that the personal experiences that I have as a queer woman is where my work kind of establishes itself.”

Niamh: On that note, where would you like to see yourself go with all of your creative projects? 

Gabrielle: I think I would just like to keep writing, and to feel that I’m not just – even though it feels like a very solo task – creating content to go out there, but that in creating it I’m getting energised or something is going in as well. 

Obviously I, like many, would love to do that full time, and to figure out the perfect equilibrium between something that isn’t just indulgent but also analyses those power structures that I care a lot about. 

Niamh: I really like how your academics really connect to your creativity because I feel like I’m kind of the same too. Especially with queerness, learning about Queer Theory in Boston [on her study abroad] was so fucking eye opening for me. So I do really relate to that, where it’s doing something that is a part of your identity. 

Gabrielle: Yeah, it’s just to see and to be seen, right, that’s all you’re really looking for. What about you? Where do you see it going?

Niamh: I don’t really know, that’s the thing. I don’t really have any expectations at all because I literally did not think that I would be able to make even a part-time job out of it. I think what I hope to be doing is working with a really cool organisation where I can combine my degree with photography and make things that can actually change how we look at things. 

Something like GCN would be such a cool place to work just in the next couple of years, which is the Gay Community News of Ireland. 

But then, people always ask me this question and I just say that I want to take photos of people that I really admire for different reasons. So like, everyone knows I’m obsessed with Clairo, so whenever I get to take Clairo’s picture that’s when I’ll be like, “Ok yeah, I achieved what I wanted to achieve, I’ve made it.”

But I think it’s just good to have no expectations because then when anything happens it’s like “Oh my god!”

Gabrielle: Yeah I think that’s sweet. I think it’s good to have expectations too. Right now I’m like, “I’m excited about it, and I have ten million ideas for things because I find them fulfilling and I think they contribute something.” And that … that’s a nice feeling!

And, on this hopeful note, the conversation ends.